Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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The Furthest Adventures of Count Bakula

by Michael Ray Laemmle


There was a man we children loved -- a nobleman from two hundred years in the future.

His name was Count Bakula. He spent his adult life traveling across time to decades of the past. While in the past he poked people with needles -- mostly the young. He carried his needles with him from the future. They were specially contaminated with pathogens not yet discovered in our time, viruses, bacteria, spongiform, algae and protozoa -- all of them responsible for outbreaks of nauseating illness in the centuries to come. In Bakula's day, a medley of grisly diseases had ravaged humanity and greatly diminished its numbers. So he journeyed across time to vaccinate the citizens of bygone eras, giving them the power to ward off the sickness of the future.

His home was Los Angeles in the year 2200. He was a nobleman because the United States had by that time reverted to a feudal society, as had most of the world. This due to the chaos of the early 2100's, caused by the unhampered spread of infectious fevers and pox. Out of the pandemic evolved European-style courtly societies reminiscent of those existing at the turn of the 18th Century. Industrial society at that time was unthinkable. There were not enough people to run corporate bureaucracies, and humankind had grown suspicious of technology. Perhaps someday there would once again be factories and power plants, but agricultural civilizations were all anybody cared to uphold. As in the 1700's, there were serfs, merchants, abbots, soldiery, and royalty of every title. Dukes, barons, earls, and squires. Even kings; many thousands of them across America. Because the United States never had a royalty, all the titles were chosen from what people remembered of English and Continental gentries.

A bachelor, Count Bakula's life had been one of scholarly absorption. He spent most days in his laboratory. At night he corresponded with other scientific men. His mother once tried to marry him off to a worthy Duchess, but he would have none of her. At their introduction, to express his derision for her pompous courtly airs and preference for well-bred society, he held his nose in the air and would not speak a word to her even in courtesy.

To our great amusement -- remember, we were children, none older than ten or eleven years old -- he would imitate the crippled movements and moans of people with the symptoms of future diseases. Old cantankerous men walking the streets with their skin peeling off like old wallpaper, raising their arm to hail a cab only to have the whole rotten appendage fall off. He would pantomime the wild-eyed shock of women patting their heads down, feeling for hair that has just blown off their scalp like the airy white fuzz from a dead dandelion. Or doubled over, he would hilariously use his fingers to plug up various orifices out of which imaginary fluids were dribbling. Like the boy who tried plugging the dam with his fingers, every time Bakula stopped a leak another would start from some other part of his body.

But it wasn't all fun and games for Bakula. Poking fun at symptomatic peoples was easy when one wasn't themselves diseased. It was harrowing to witness the agony of the sick. Bakula was sixteen the first time he'd left royal grounds to tour the ruins of Los Angeles. He traveled the streets in a Dodge mini-van pulled by four horses. Gasoline was available, but at a premium. Oil was no longer refined in great volume, though there were small independent producers. What Bakula saw yanked his heart strings.

Great fires had burned down most suburban tract housing. Where pavement hadn't been laid the land had reverted to arable soil. This was where peasants released from indentured servitude to a lord managed their subsistence farms. Though ramshackle, these small family plots were charming compared to the slums of the burnt-out metropolis. In the streets between abandoned sky-scrapers, farmers came in from what was once suburbia to trade and sell their goods at enormous bazaars. Most of the living had natural immunity to the diseases which had wiped out the great masses of humankind, but there was always some new virus or fever being introduced. Spread by a sick nomad who traveled the countryside selling earthenware pots, or an undiscriminating prostitute who never turned away a paying customer. Neglected by the healthy were the dead and dying in the streets. A thousand different illnesses with a thousand different symptoms, all grotesquely on display. Men with shriveled, raisin-like heads squeegeed his windows before being Tasered by his carriage driver. Tumorous hands and wispy hair. Black teeth, crusty eyes. Boils, sores, blisters, and cysts of every shape, color and size.

Being rich Bakula had been inoculated against most of the major new strains of disease. Like gasoline, there were independent researchers developing vaccines. But the days of mass manufactured pharmaceuticals was long past. Bakula was so moved by his ride he devoted himself completely to medicine. Like others he developed vaccines, but his weren't only be available to elites. He built a factory where cures, correctives, antibiotics, and balms were produced in outrageous number. Bakula paraded weekly through the streets with colleagues, delivering treatments free of charge. People were wary of needles, as might be expected in a sickness-ravaged world. So Bakula owned a stuffed animal collection numbering in the hundreds. Each was a puppet into which a person could stuff their hand, controlling head and arm movements with their fingers. The Count would push a dirty hypodermic needle through the stuffing. Then he'd offer the plush toy to people who, as they took it from his hands, were simultaneously poked with the needle that would bolster their immunity.

####

Sammy was a kid in our gang. He inadvertently alerted authorities to the whereabouts and peculiar pastimes of Bakula. Until then he had remained, perhaps amazingly, a well-kept secret. Sam was an innocent soul. One day he told his mother his palm itched where the needle had poked him. The puncture wound had risen to a red, irritated bump in the center of his hand. He wanted her to rub anti-inflammatory creams on it.

Sam's mother was confused. She hadn't taken him for vaccinations in over a year. "Where did you get jabbed with a needle, Sammy?" she asked.

"From Count Bakula," he shyly admitted.

"And who is Mister Bakula?"

"He lives in Cotter's Grove," said Sam with growing enthusiasm. It was a relief to spill his secret.

"By the railroad yard?"

"In the shack. Us kids call it Panhandler's Mansion."

"I know what the kids call it. And there's a man living there?"

"He's from the future! He came back in time to give us all immunity!"

That night when their father got home, Sammy's mother made him repeat his story about the new resident at the rail yard. He sat horrified as Sammy calmly discussed the man who'd been poking neighborhood children with a hypodermic needle for the last few months. Most troubling was Ziggy, a stuffed velveteen rabbit Bakula held out for kids to take from his hands. One of his many puppets, and the only one he took with him when traveling through time.

Sammy described how it worked. Bakula pushed a needle through Ziggy's fabric, so when kids grabbed for it they poked themselves on the sharp point. Everyone knew after the first time there was a needle buried inside, but nobody minded because Bakula was doing good. By poking them they were infected with oddball diseases, only in very small, ineffectual doses. Thus the children's immune systems, introduced to inactive strains of disease-causing pathogens, developed resistances to the terrible plagues of the not-too-distant future. Unlike traditional vaccines, the pathogens in Bakula's were designed to remain permanently dormant in the infected person's nervous system. That way they could spread immunity through sexual or intimate contact.

Sammy's parents phoned others to schedule an emergency meeting for the following day. They sent every child along with chaperones to the local swimming pool for a barbecue and birthday party, though it was nobody's birthday and no barbecue was eaten. There were different opinions expressed at the meeting. Some wanted to barricade the perverted homeless man inside his shack and burn it to the ground. Others to drag the wastrel out and pull him apart with their bare hands. A few suggested gouging his eyes out with the same needles he had been poking their kids with. But after the fiery rhetoric of the first few minutes, cooler heads prevailed and the police were called, along with family doctors and the Centers for Disease Control.

####

This was Fremont, California in the early 1960's. Vietnam was an Asian country we'd never heard of, mothers didn't work and men didn't grow their hair long. AIDS, Ebola, SARS, Mad-Cow Disease, Squawking Bird Flu and other super-viruses didn't have everybody scared out of their wits. Perhaps because television was seldom watched, or simply because we were naive, nobody ever thought a microorganism developed as a biological weapon by the military might be stolen from a scientist with twisted aspirations to wipe humankind from the Earth. Likewise, we never suspected that deregulation of the pharmaceutical industry would lead to a boom in shoddy vaccinations that actually seeded epidemics of disease a thousand times worse than those they were supposedly curing. Men like Count Bakula didn't have to travel back in time poking people with dirty needles. Life wasn't perfect in those days, but it sure seemed like it was.

Bakula lived near the railroad yard in a dilapidated shack we called Panhandler's Mansion. The shack was built from old boards and aluminum siding, set up on stilts at the edge of a clearing we called Cotter's Grove. These names derived from the prior resident, a hobo named Jeremiah Cotter. A train-jumper and wino who settled in Fremont after the Second World War. He disappeared one night. Hopped an eastbound train, some said. But around the campfire we told stories of him being hit full-on by a locomotive as he drunkenly crossed the tracks one dark evening. His body was vaporized, shattered into droplets, and his wet little particles had finely coated every blade of grass in the Grove. Some had it that on full moons Jeremiah's particles coagulated and the old hobo regenerated. If a child was around he would suck their blood and tongue-kiss them.

Between Hobo Cotter and Count Bakula the shack was vacant. Neighborhood kids used the area as a clubhouse, playground, and romper room. Regardless of ghost stories, we built forts there and played Cowboys and Indians. Even shot BB guns at one another. That's how One-Eyed Whitman got his nickname.

One-Eyed Whitman was the first to meet Bakula, and the first to be inoculated. He was alone in Cotter's Grove one Saturday, setting bottles on a log to throw rocks at. While placing one there came a racket from the shack, which lit up with a blinding, bluish-white light. Lightning bolts shot from the windows, and Whitman squatted with his heal pressed into his sphincter so he wouldn't crap his pants. Summoning courage, grabbing a shard of broken glass, he cautiously ascended the front steps. Pushing aside the stained brown curtain tacked up as a front door, he spied a middle-aged man sitting cross-legged in front of the ratty old sofa some older kids had dragged inside. The man was completely naked, a large stuffed rabbit sitting in the hollow of his lap.

Whitman thought him the ghost of Jeremiah Cotter. Maybe he should have been scared, but the storytelling had made the hobo a familiar figure in our minds. We already half-expected a regenerated Hobo Cotter to appear, so it was no great surprise to behold a man who'd apparently materialized out of nothingness. His nakedness was somewhat startling, as was the plush rabbit held in his lap, but these were secondary details in comparison to the main thing.

"Hobo Carter? I come in peace." Whitman held his palm up flat, in what we understood as the Indian way of peaceful greetings. In his other hand he readied the glass shard for defensive slashing.

"Hobo Carter? No, not I. But he sounds like a very nice man. My name is Count Bakula. I'm from the future. What's your name, little one?"

"Terry. But everybody calls me One-Eyed Whitman." He pointed to the white scarring on his left eye. "Got shot with a BB. I can still see pretty good though." He wished to emphasize he was in no way handicapped, and wouldn't be easy to take advantage of.

"Terrible business, but I'm glad your sight isn't impaired. Pleased to make your acquaintance. Would you like to hold my rabbit?" Bakula held the stuffed animal out for Whitman to grab.

"Hold your rabbit?" the boy asked suspiciously. It seemed like an obvious ruse. While Whitman reached for the rabbit, the naked man would grab his wrist. "You some kind of pervert?"

"Of course not," said Bakula. "You and I are friends. I just want you to hold him. He's getting very heavy in my lap." He held the stuffed animal out as far away from his body as he could.

Whitman crept forward. He displayed the glass in his right hand so that Bakula could see he was armed.

"His name is Ziggy," said Bakula. "He's a very friendly rabbit."

Whitman squeezed the stuffed toy in his left hand, but felt something sharp and pointy poke him. He jumped back with an "Ouch! Hey, what's the big idea?" He held his shard up, ready to strike.

Bakula pulled his hand out from a hole in the bottom of the rabbit. He held an empty syringe. "I got you!" he said.

Whitman was angry. "What you got there mister? I don't like shots. You crazy old coot, I ought to cut your eyes out!" He twisted his shard in an eye-gouging motion.

Bakula laughed and held his palm out, poking it with the needle. "No, look!" he said. "Don't be angry or afraid. I'm just trying to immunize you. It's a good thing."

"Immu -- what?"

"Immunize. Like when you get a small pox or tetanus shot from the doctor, so you won't catch the disease. You go to the doctor, right?"

"Sure I do."

"I'm a doctor too, but a time-traveling one. I go back and fourth through history to immunize children."

"Wow! So you're some kind of spaceman?"

"You could technically call me that, seeing as how Einstein demonstrated early in your century that space and time are really just two names for the same thing."

"You sure talk funny, mister. I never heard of Einstein. Is he in the comics?"

"No, he was very real. A scientist, like me."

"And what's this immuzination stuff again?"

"Immunization," corrected Bakula. "Inside your body are tiny little cells that fight diseases. White blood cells. They're part of your immune system, and help you to not get sick."

"You sure are weird. I think I'll tell my brother about you, and the gang. Maybe even Pa."

"That's a good idea. Tell you what, why don't you bring all your little friends down here to meet me."

"Why would they want to meet you?"

"Aren't they curious about the future?"

"Yeah, probably. You really from the future, Mister?"

"Call me Count Bakula. And yes, I really am."

"Well I'll go tell the gang then. I sure hope you got some darn good stories."

####

Whitman came by the soda fountain and told us about Bakula. We were incredulous and teased him, tousling his hair, calling him an idiot. But something about his dogged insistence convinced us his claim was at least worth looking into. About ten of us marched with him back to Cotter's Grove, gathering weapons of sticks, rocks, and empty bottles along the way. Probably some new hobo had taken up residence and was trying to frighten local kids away. We had no plans to beat the poor fellow. We just wanted a dramatic display of power to show him we meant business. The Grove didn't belong to winos or children alone. It belonged to everybody and must be shared.

We stood as a group outside Panhandler's Mansion, demanding Bakula show his face or we'd come in after him. There was some rumbling inside, then out stumbled a middle-aged man, completely naked except for the dirty doorway curtain he had pulled down and now wore as a toga. He stood on the porch like a thespian making his dramatic debut. Mounted on his right hand was the stuffed rabbit.

He stretched his rabbit arm towards the sky and dropped to his knees, "To be or not to be? That is the question." He leapt up, pirouetting and twirling back and forth across the landing. He came to rest leaning against the flimsy porch railing, facing us. We were certain the railing would give and this crazy coot would come tumbling face-first onto the ground. It stretched and creaked but held securely. It was comical, not frightening. Bakula seemed more clown than kidnapper, molester, or ghoul.

He bowed deeply over the rail as we held our breath in expectation of his fall. "My name is Count Bakula. I come from the future. I am tickled pink to meet you all."

We laughed aloud. "The future! Crazy old coot! You must watch too many movies!"

Marvin, the oldest of our bunch, stepped forward, shaking his large stick. "If you're really from the future, then why don't you tell us about it? Are there flying cars? Do we eat all our meals in pill form?" Bravery surging in us, there arose a chorus of similar challenges. Did people have two heads? Had we been enslaved by Martians? Did we go around shooting laser guns? Could we breathe underwater? Did people live on the moon? We shouted dozens of ridiculous speculations on the weird, wild world of the future. To all of them Count Bakula held up his palm and patiently shook his head no. Then we were done and he stood there silently.

"Well?" we asked. "Cat got your tongue, mister?"

Bakula paused. Eyes closed as if transforming memories into words illustrative enough to describe the fantastic images in his mind. What he said next was of such a kind and quality as to stun. Up until then everything had the feel of sport. We would pester the new wino and have a jolly time doing so. But his speech was so poignant, the emotions expressed so authentic, we couldn't help but be moved. Even as unsophisticated as we children were, we could tell his speech was part of some dramatic act he must have often rehearsed. But it was also evident this old thespian's monologue had its origin in some profoundly deep well-spring within his soul.

"Children," he sadly said, "I too once hoped the future would be full of rocket ships and skateboards that hovered. That people would eat nutritive pills instead of meals, and robot maids would do our housework. But except for a few things like the ability to travel back in time, your world is more technologically advanced than that which I come from. In the middle of the 21st Century, a hundred years from now, humankind started down a path that eventually led to its destruction. It was fashionable in those times to disparage civilization and the doings of mankind. As industrial societies polluted the Earth and destroyed ecosystems, people were compared to viruses. In taxonomies different from the Linnaean, humans could be classified as such. Like viruses, it was said, we were parasitical. A virus will often infect a host and feed off it while simultaneously killing it. The host dies, and the virus moves on to a new carrier. Humans did much the same when they destroyed the environments which sustained them. In ancient history, when soil became barren from over-farming or water was poisoned by sewage runoff, civilizations collapsed and the people who once inhabited them moved on. Many pseudo-philosophers and intellectual mountebanks begin to devalue human progress, and scoffed at modern living. Many began to worship the Earth, calling it Gaia after the mythical Greek titan, mother of the Earth. Gaia's overall health was considered more important than human happiness and prosperity. This was an idea born of luxury and easy survival. Once people began dying in the millions from exotic diseases with horrifying symptoms, they soon thought much less of the world's health and more about their own. But by then it was too late.

"During this period there was a surge in books, films, and television shows depicting biological researchers who smuggled viruses from the laboratories where they worked, afterwards releasing them on the unsuspecting public. Often the motivation behind these fictional actions was a belief that viruses were more deserving of life than humanity, which appeared to them as a botched and destructive creature. Life often imitates art. Many virologists began to accept the beliefs of their fictional counterparts, and a few of them released contagions on the public. These were ravaging, and untold destruction was unleashed. But these isolated events were not themselves the cause of humanity's downfall, though they did sow the seed for it.

"In response to the outbreaks, the public clamored for new vaccines and antibiotics. Under pressure from their constituencies, influenced by pharmaceutical lobbyists, politicians began to deregulate drug companies, which had once been tightly bound by laws passed to protect the public. With their newfound freedom, companies put drugs on the market faster than they could be purchased. Rather than offering the safest product and trudging through the tedious, years-long process of research trials, they put out anything they thought could turn a buck. The masses hungered for inoculation. People wanted immunity to everything, from male pattern baldness to restless leg syndrome. Though only a limited number of diseases could actually be vaccinated against, there was an alleged vaccine for almost every ailment. Without oversight or rigid quality control, corporations regularly released infected batches of vaccines, or the vaccines themselves would cause other epidemics of peculiar new diseases, some merely annoying and others quite deadly. Often these viruses and bacteria would naturally evolve into airborne pathogens. With air travel and international mobility, great pandemics began, and billions fell sick and died over the course of the 22nd Century.

"Humanity was almost wiped out, and in 2200 is still on the brink of extinction. New diseases continually evolve from old ones, putting people perpetually at risk. But under much the same circumstances that modern science developed, aristocratic persons like myself have been afforded the leisure time to work independently, with more seriousness and self-regulation, on better vaccines and less dangerous drugs. Particle accelerators have been developed which allow us to quantum leap into eras not our own, putting things right that once went wrong. Men like myself are continuously traveling into the past and inoculating people to diseases that will ravage the world in decades to come. That's why I've come, and if I ever poke you children with a dirty needle, know it's because I've made it my life's mission to make the future a better place, one person at a time."

####

The next few months passed like a dream. In growing numbers we came to hear Bakula's futuristic tales, of his adventures in time poking citizens from different decades with dirty needles. Whenever we brought a new child into the fold, we wouldn't tell them about Ziggy's needle. Bakula would hold the rabbit out as we stood around cheering the initiate on. "Hug the rabbit!" we squealed. "Give old Ziggy a squeeze!" They got poked and we would raise them up on our shoulders, parading them around Cotter's Grove like a hero.

Occasionally we were with Bakula when he made a quantum leap. In the middle of a story he'd slur his words, wobble on his legs, and gradually become translucent. In the center of his see-through body a tiny black hole would appear. Blue light shot from it, becoming a crackling ball of bluish lightning that covered his body like an aura. He would be sucked into the hole with a tiny popping sound, then a little trail of smoke languidly rose through the air from its source in apparently empty space. The process was reversed when Bakula reappeared, but these events were random. We were rarely there to greet him upon his return.

After three months of clandestine gatherings at the Grove, a nerdish boy named Randy awoke one night and left his room for a glass of water. He overheard his parents discussing Bakula with my own. This was the evening of our swimming pool birthday barbecue that was neither. They had called the police. Tomorrow a small raid would be conducted on Pandhandler's Mansion, and Bakula taken into custody. Randy crept upstairs, dressed, snuck out his window. He lurked through the shadows to my window, at which he threw small pebbles until I awoke. I stood half-asleep in my pajamas as Randy repeated all he overheard.

Bakula must be warned. We hopped on our bikes and pedaled our way to Cotter's Grove. We found Bakula sitting calmly on the sofa in candlelight.

"Count Bakula," I cried, pulling his arm, "we have to go! Our parents found out about you and they've called the police! They're coming to arrest you in the morning."

Bakula didn't seem particularly riled or surprised. He simply stood up, grabbed Ziggy, and let me lead him by the hand out of doors into the starry night. We discussed plans. We would hop a train together. We could get off at the next stop, and Bakula would continue on to some distant destination. Bakula had no part in forming these plans, but was happy enough to go along. He said during the night freight trains rumbled by nearly on the hour. If we waited just a few minutes one would surely pass through the rail yard. They moved slowly here. It would be easy to hop in an open car.

Fifteen minutes passed before a train came. Slinking in the bushes while the engine crawled by, we ran out to the first empty car we saw and effortlessly jumped inside. As we left the rail yard speed picked up and we sat in a circle talking, delighted with our merry adventure. Bakula was much quieter than usual, and only spoke to answer questions. Where would he go? What would he do? If he were arrested, could prison hold him or would he simply quantum leap his way to freedom? He wasn't agitated or nervous, and yet he was not himself. In the darkness of the train car he was difficult to see, even though the night was somewhat well-illuminated by the stars, our eyes had adjusted to the dark, and us children were fairly visible to one another. In our excitement it hardly registered that Bakula was becoming increasingly transparent.

"Count Bakula?"

"Yes, Randy?"

"We might never see you again."

"Undoubtedly," he said.

"Will you tell us one last story?"

Bakula seemed pleased. "I hardly have any stories left. But I will tell you something interesting, a thing which you may never have thought of. It's a good thing. I am happy."

"Gee, what is it?"

"There is a concept we time-travelers are familiar with, called the predestination paradox. Theorists traditionally maintained that altering history was impossible. That even should a man travel back in time specifically to alter the past, he cannot do so. Events will transpire in such a way that history will unfold in the same way as it did prior. There is an old Twilight Zone episode in which a fellow goes back in time to thwart a fire in a building. But while there he knocks over a kerosene lamp and starts the very fire he later went back in time to stop. This story, and others like it, suggests people are locked into historical events."

"It sure makes my head spin to think of it," said Randy.

"Yes," said Bakula, "mine too. But it turns out these theorists are incorrect. The past can be altered, for better or worse."

"Just like you're trying to do!" I said.

"Indeed. And now it seems that mine and my colleague's efforts have proved successful. We've inoculated so many the diseases which would have once devoured mankind are now unable to do so."

"So what happens now?"

"Now, I disappear. Without the pandemics, there is no chaos. Without great social upheaval, the neo-feudal societies of the future do not evolve. I can no longer be Count Bakula, because there is no aristocracy. Perhaps I will be somebody else, a man who doesn't travel through time poking people with dirty needles. Or perhaps I will not even be born."

"It can't be!" we said.

"Don't worry children. If I can't be born, or can't be the same man I became, it means we have saved humankind from the brink of annihilation. There is no cause for sadness, only celebration." With that, Bakula struck a match, and in the raw light of fire we saw that Bakula had almost completely disappeared, was just a transparent ghost or spirit.

"I don't have long, boys," he said. "Let's say goodbye. No crying."

"No crying," we agreed, but our eyes flooded with hot tears.

We took turns hugging Bakula. It felt like hugging air and we had to visibly check that our arms were held realistically around his fading form. We sat in silence awhile. Count Bakula slowly vanished until he was gone, waving goodbye. Ziggy had been sitting in his lap, and he fell quietly to the floor. Then Ziggy also faded away, and a hypodermic needle dropped to the ground. Then the needle itself vanished. And then Count Bakula, his rabbit Ziggy, and the dirty needles he poked us with were all just beautiful memories inside our heads.

THE END


© 2008 Michael Ray Laemmle

Bio: Mr. Laemmle's work has appeared in Neon Beam, Yellow Mama, Poor Mojo's Almanac(k), and Why Vanalism.

E-mail: Michael Ray Laemmle

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